Nathalie Jonsson

Science Writer 

  1. Look, I Have Some Advice For You

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    I have probably always given people advice. Even if they didn’t ask for it.

    Recently, it’s been about the importance of ‘following your dreams’, ‘fulfil your potential ’ and that kind of stuff (life crisis anyone?). I have become some kind of preacher, shoving my ‘good advice’ in the face of others. But why am I not living my life according to my own great advice?

    Giving your friends advice can affect you in different ways. It all depends on the situation. If you are just casually helping a friend in need, your advice will not impact what you do next. But if you happen to give advice related to goals in life, you should watch out. If you advice a friend on how to reach a goal that you happen share, you might become motivated to get yourself closer to that goal.

    However, if you feel very strongly about achieving it you might be better of not saying anything. It turns out that giving advice on how to reach a shared life goal that you really want to achieve, actually makes you slack off. Confusing? Sure is.

    The theory goes, that your brain will assume that the friend takes your advice and gets closer to the goal. Since the advice came from you, vicariously you have made the same progress. It also makes it seem really easy to achieve the goal and therefore you will put less effort in.

    Not sure that is why I don’t take my own advice, but it sounds like a good excuse.

  2. To Friend Or Not To Friend

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    I have to admit, I have disliked people enough to leave an entire group behind. I have distanced myself just to escape one individual. The energy spent on trying to accept the values, or sometimes general personality, of some is just not worth your effort. You only live once and your time is better spent on people you like.

    ‘Balance Theory’ reckons that we strive for harmony within a group. Whenever there is a difference of opinions or if two individuals dislike each other, some people are prone to take action to restore harmony. The solution that jeopardises the least for the group will win.

    Sometimes it could mean that you have to change your opinion or that you choose to physically remove yourself from the situation. On what grounds you will respond to tension can be measured with the Preference for Consistency (PFC) scale. A high PFC score means that you wish to remain consistent in your actions and also that you value preexisting knowledge when making choices. Low PFC score makes you quite open to consider information then and there.

    Regardless of your score, the people we get on best with are strangers (although with a high PFC you will prefer strangers extra if you know that you will have to encounter them again). Which is an obvious advantage for making new friends, but could also set you off on the path towards utter disaster. You have to give it a go to know for sure.

  3. Will the Pirate Save The Music Industry?

    December 9

    Since becoming illegal, internet piracy has been a hot topic. Sales figures from the record industry show that fewer people are buying CDs. The companies claim that a large part of their revenue is lost to illegal downloads. The area is hard to research since much of the activity is done in secret.

    The explanations to why people download music illegally range from the demoralisation of today’s youngsters (a classic!) to the price of CDs being too high. The American Assembly, a part of Columbia University, have actually asked people. They confirmed a few expected things: piracy is very common, especially among 18–29 year-olds. This is also the age group with very large digital music collections. In addition to the expected, the study found that because of a genuine interest in music the biggest pirates are also the biggest music consumers. The anti-piracy organisation in the US has dismissed the results as misleading.

    It confirms that the record companies would rather sell a few CDs to as many as possible than a lot of music to few with a genuine interest. Traditionally, when you run a business you treat your regulars (or the costumers sharing a passion for what you do) the best and hope for repeat business.

    No wonder record companies are going down.

  4. The Predictable Randomness Of Humans

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    I have a fear of flying. Or more specifically, I have a fear of crashing.

    Plane crashes are very rare. In fact, plane crashed are studied in minute detail and always seem to be caused by many small coinciding malfunctions. For some reason though, my brain tricks me into thinking that for every safe flight I experience, I get closer to that very rare disastrous one. This is known as ‘The Gambler’s Fallacy’.

    Many times gamblers will think that the longer a lucky streak goes on for, the more likely it is to end at the next turn. This is because humans are unable to generate random sequences. If you want random, you’re better off using a computer.

    Our perception of randomness does not match actual statistics. Humans tend to think that sequences with many alterations are random. It makes us prone to overestimate when sequences or events are truly random and it also makes us label unlikely events as random.

    In the gambling scenario, this means that only when the gambler thinks that the streak is random (and they are not in control of the events) will they start to worry about it ending. If they are under the illusion that they can control the game, they won’t worry as much. Both scenarios are in fact random and the probability of the streak lasting is the same in every turn.

    The feeling that I am ticking off safe flights until I have the inevitable experience of a crash is just in my head. Every time I get on a flight I am as unlikely to crash, regardless of what happened the last time I flew.

    Like in so many other situations, my fear is just a limitation of my human brain.

  5. Peering Into the Future of Today

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    At the end of the past millennia big business was thriving.

    It was so powerful that it played a natural role in the romantic comedy “You’ve got mail”. Despite being based on a book written in the 1950s, the story adapts perfectly to 1998:

    Meg Ryan plays an owner of a quaint little family bookshop under threat from a big chain that opens up across the street. The big bookstore chain is run by Tom Hanks, who through a varying degree of dirty tricks tries to obliterate all other traders in the area. Oh, and unbeknown to them they are nurturing a blooming romance with each other via e-mail (although I am not quite sure how this fits into the 1950s story). Anyway, Meg cannot fight the natural course of the big business taking over. It is an unstoppable force.

    More than a decade later, when the memory of this average comedy had long faded, I found myself trying help a struggling bookstore. The big bookstore chain Borders, a 40-year-old American company started by two brothers, was going bankrupt. The tables had turned, the internet provided a more attractive way to buy books, and this time Tom Hanks was going down.

    In the Forbes blog post “Your Life In 2020” John Maeda, graphic designer and computer scientist, foresees an increase in humanity in our future. The internet is well integrated into our lives and is here to stay. He predicts, using smart phone apps as an example, a future shift from ‘accepting corporate anonymity’ to appreciating hand crafted and well-made products. Although there is a lot of substance in the post, I have to disagree with one thing:

    This is not life in 2020.

    It is life today.

  6. Joyeux Nobel!

    I was once interviewed by a Professor for a PhD position in London. I was living and working in Oxford at the time and he had some ties in Cambridge. We went on to speak a bit about the classic rivalry between the Cambridge and Oxford Universities. He mentioned the high number of Nobel Prizes Cambridge alumni have received (more than any other institution in the world) and asked me how Stockholm University ranked. With a smirk I replied:

    -“How does Stockholm University rank? Well, either you receive the Nobel Prize…or you give it.”

    I did not get that PhD position.

    I am happy that I claimed to have a somewhat close connection to the Nobel Prize. In reality the closest I got was having one of the people that choose the chemistry prize as a lecturer. I even managed to miss the annual lectures held at the university by the Nobel Laureates as part of their Stockholm visit for the ceremony.

    I won’t be in Stockholm this year either, but through the magic of technology at least I can catch the series of lectures online. Check back in the next two days to catch some of the action. Live.

  7. The Science of Segmented Sleep

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    I am notoriously bad at falling asleep at night. And I have spent many afternoons trying to overcome the fact that I cannot keep my eyes open. I have always written it off as my own fault. “I let gluttony get the best of me and had a huge lunch”, or “I did not sleep enough last night”. But maybe it was never my fault at all.

    The historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech, spent 16 years studying sleeping patterns by reading old court records, medical literature, diaries and literature. In 2005 he published, ‘At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past’, a book about his findings.

    As expected sleep was not elaborated on and was referred to as common knowledge, but quite unexpectedly the sleeping pattern of yesteryear was very different from modern day sleeping. Classics, as ‘Don Quixote’ by Cervantes from 1615 and ‘Barnaby Rudge’ by Charles Dickens from 1840, describe sleeping in two shifts. They refer to a ‘first sleep’ and a ‘second sleep’. First sleep seems to start around two hours after dusk, followed by one or two hours awake before leading into a second sleep.

    In the late 17th century the two sleeping shifts become less frequent in literature and in the 1920s they were history. According to Ekirch, fading of segmented sleep from the old records coincides with the industrial revolution and maybe more specifically, the first candle lit streets. The new social order allowed the average citizen to roam the streets at night, something that previously only prostitutes, criminals and drunks had done. As people started using the night for new exciting activities the importance of maintaining sleep patterns dwindled. And even though society might have made us forget, Ekirch argues that segmented sleep at night and the occasional nap in the daytime is the natural way of sleeping.

    I think that most of us would sign up for trying out life as Ekirch describes it. I definitely would. At least I don’t have to take the blame for the impulses of sleeping that my body puts me through. Next time I try to disguise a yawn during work hours I will tell myself: “It’s society’s fault”.

  8. Do You Have The Genes To Survive?

    I once had a friend read my palm.

    At first she refused. She had previously upset another friend when she had reviled the secrets hidden in the folds of her hands. After I promised to not take any of her premonitions to heart, she was persuaded. I was told that I would have a really long life. A long life of disasters. A long horrible life awaited. My lifeline was apparently cut many times.

    Your genes control you (at least Richard Dawkins is pretty sure of this). Your behaviour is determined by the genes you were born with. According to Dawkins, natural selection will always favour genes with the ability to adapt the individual to its surrounding environment.

    I don’t care much about what my friend saw in my palm. And even if it would be true, there is a chance that I have nature on my side. I might be one of the lucky humans with good genes that can adapt to my surroundings.

    I will be fine.